If you’re starting a garden, or have had one for years but have never taken the time to understand the difference between GMO, hybrid and heirloom seeds, here’s your opportunity.
Heirloom seeds are derived from open-pollinated plants that pass on similar characteristics and traits from the parent plant to the child plant. They’re possible to regrow, and be passed on from one generation to the next. In most cases, heirloom plants are organic because they’re typically only used by small-scale gardeners who do not use pesticides or other harmful chemicals. However, in some cases, chemicals may be involved as heirloom plants don’t always have a similar level of innate protection that hybrid and GMO plants provide when it comes to various pests and diseases.
There are many reasons to choose heirloom seeds:
1. They taste better
Heirloom seeds tend to taste better because they were produced by gardeners who didn’t use chemicals in their garden. They’re often organic, which allows the plants to bloom and develop as they were intended. They’ve often been saved for decades, and, in some cases, centuries, as they’re the best performers.
As mentioned, heirloom seeds come from open-pollinated plants, which is another big reason to choose them. That means that you won’t have to buy more seeds every year, and try to guess which grew best and so on. All you have to do is harvest the seeds from the plants you grow.
The seeds from heirlooms can be dried, stored and planted the next year, so you’ll always have a good supply of seeds. Hybrid seed packs, on the other hand, are close pollinated. That means someone specifically pollinated those plants to produce another plant with the qualities of the first two. Open pollinated plants use nature, whether it’s the wind, birds or bees, which means there was no human intervention, or changing the DNA of a plant’s makeup as with genetically modified plants.
3. You’ll save money
Because you can save the seeds you harvest from an heirloom plant, you won’t have to buy them ever again, unless you want to. While they cost a bit more up front, when you consider the long term, you’ll be paying a lot less.
4. You’ll get more nutrition
Heirloom seeds are generally more nutritious than their hybrid counterparts. In fact, recent research has shown that in many cases, newer vegetables and are significantly less nutritious than heirlooms.
5. It’s better for the environment
If you have to buy new seed packs each year, that means you’re buying more packaging with it too. While seeds themselves are tiny, they’re generally sold in much larger packages than necessary. Plus, you won’t have to use your car to drive the store to buy them, or have them shipped. Every little bit counts, and it can add up over time.
6. More unique produce
Because they’re nature made, heirloom plants aren’t all the same. While that may not seem all that important, it means that you won’t get a ton of vegetables that are all ready to harvest at the same time, like hybrid plants. If you planted, for example, an entire row of tomato plants using hybrid seeds, you’ll get a whole bunch of tomatoes the same week, and then nothing else later. Heirlooms have their own schedule, growing and ripening at various times, so you’ll get those tomatoes over several weeks rather all at the same time – they may have different shapes and colors too. Having an entire row of tomatoes that are all identical in color, size and shape may be what you see at most grocery stores, but it isn’t natural.
Now that you know why to choose heirloom seeds, here are the best places to buy them.
1. Seed Savers Exchange
Many gardeners rate the Seed Savers Exchange as the very best place to purchase heirloom seeds for vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. The Seed Savers Exchange, or SSE, is a non-profit organization that works to save heirloom garden seed from extinction. Founded back in 1975, its focus is on preserving varieties of seeds that gardeners and farmers brought to North America way back when their families immigrated, as well as traditional varieties grown by Native Americans, Mennonites and the Amish.
The exchange’s 8,000 members grow heirloom many different varieties, offering them for exchange to other members in an incredible annual yearbook that contains more than 450 pages. This treasure trove even offers nearly extinct varieties of seed to try in your garden, and all the money you spend there will go towards helping protect seed biodiversity. You might find yourself addicted to checking out all the new exciting plant varieties you can get for your garden – it’s a whole lot of fun.
2. Territorial Seed Company
This seed company is a large, family-owned organization that’s first catalog was printed by in 1979 by Steve Solomon, the company’s founder. Solomon sold the company six years later to Tom and Julie Johns, who still own it today. Based in Cottage Grove, Oregon, its mission is to “improve people’s self-sufficiency and independence by enabling gardeners to produce an abundance of good tasting, fresh-from-the-garden food.”
Territorial trials and evaluates all of its seeds at its farms, as well as live plants that are on offer, which are raised in greenhouses. They have a 100% money back guarantee, and in addition to heirloom seeds, they also offer hybrids for both vegetables and plants. The company’s germination standards are higher than what’s called for by the Federal Seed Act, and the farm is certified USDA Organic, as well as Biodynamic and Salmon-Safe.
3. High Mowing Organic Seeds
Based in Wolcott, Vermont, High Mowing Seeds has been around for a little over two decades now. It was founded by Tom Stearns in 1996 after he’d tilled up a portion of his backyard to grow plants for organic seed production. Just five years later, his company had grown so much that he needed to contract local farms to grow seeds just to keep up with the high demand.
Customers say they appreciate the attentive, personal service as well as the wide variety of organic selections that are suitable for organic market farming. Everything is certified organic, making things much easier for certified organic farms to order seeds.
4. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
If you live in the Southeast or Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., you may want to order from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Founded in 1982, this company specializes in varieties that perform well in those areas. The organization offers many unique, unusual Southern heirlooms such as collard greens, okra, naturally colored cotton, peanuts, southern peas, turnip greens, yacon and many others.
The company also donates 30% of its sales of Rainbow Starters Mix and Virginia Heritage Seed Collection to the Piedmont Environmental Council and Buy Fresh, Buy Local. In 2017, it added 20 more varieties to its listings, including Shows Okra which produces well on semi-dwarf plants.
5. Kusa Seed Society
Based in Ojai, California, this organization’s work is an effort to ensure the survival of many ancient, rare, and endangered edible seed crop strains. The Kusa Seed Research Foundation began operating in 1980, as a scientific and educational organization. Its focus is on seed crops that’s grain can be used as a staple food, as well as to be saved as seed. Its mission statement reads that its purpose is to increase humanity’s knowledge and understanding of our connection to edible seed crops. The society offers cereal grains, grain legumes, oilseeds and other edible seeds.
6. Johnny’s Selected Seeds
This large and very popular seed company is employee-owned and offers more than 1,200 varieties of heirloom and hybrid vegetable seeds as well as medicinal, culinary herbs and flowers. It’s ideal for those who want to farm or market garden as the organization offers large quantities of seed, along with a variety of cover crops, which helps keep the soil in tip-top shape.
Originally known as Johnny Apple Seeds, its first catalog was produced in 1974, when owner Rob Johnston was working out of his parents home in Massachusetts. Today, the company is based in Winslow, Maine and also sells high quality gardening tools, equipment and accessories, along with cover crop seed, soil amendments and organic pest control products. It has an extensive site, as well as a catalog filled with detailed growing instructions and helpful tips – plus, you can use their advice even if you don’t decide to purchase seeds from them.